Jay Cost is a writer with excellent political quality of thought. Here is one of his most recent pieces: Obama the Polarizer. Read the whole thing.
Here is my response to him (sent also via email--but repeated here for this blog).
As one of my go-to-guys (it's you and Nate Silver) for cogent political analysis, I want to respond to your blog post
Back in January I did a post on the divisiveness issue with Obama (http://politicalomnivore.blogspot.com/2012/01/divider-in-chief_31.html)
But your article is more interesting than the "top-10 google search on "Most Divisive President Ever"" so I want to talk about your specific ideas.
FIRSTLY: You note that the trend started before Obama. It seems there was a steep up-tick after 00 which would make a lot of sense (very close election, Bush-v-Gore, and then Bush's wars which were certainly grounds for some division).
So the first question that I would ask is how do you separate Obama per-se from the larger trend. You cite his early response to Rush--but it was really to Rush's "I hope he fails" (which happened just before). If we are going to claim this as Obama's first divisive action, surely it has to be in context with Rush saying "I hope he fails."
(I know Rush is not 'the leader of the Republican party'--however I'm sure you've seen the Pew poll suggesting that he's as close to it as he comes--and if nothing else, he speaks for something like 20 million listeners).
As such, I don't think this can be wholly attributed to "Obama excaberating these divisions for his own political gain."
If, in fact, the polarization was -already- there (a response to 2000?) then it wouldn't necessarily be "his agenda" that was polarizing but, rather the whole dynamic. If Obama "mischaracterized" the Republican's positions (which there is some merit to) certainly his were as well (he has been called a Marxist--and there was all that birther nonsense which reached, embarrassingly high in the political food-chain ... up to, last year, the temporary Republican front runner).
Certainly if people are saying he's not fit to be president because of his birth that has to be both mischarterizing and polarizing.
So SECONDLY: what if it's not specifically what he's doing. What if it's "who he is?" (Or you could say 'Who we are as a country')?
How would we distinguish that from Obama's own actions or the specific Washington political dynamic? I think the answer is to look at the Republican Primary: Consider Romney as a control element.
- He is the obvious choice of the candidates to win in 2012. He is rich, successful, has executive experience, is attractive, tall (has presidential hair), has excellent advisers, and so on.
- Although a political animal and one with several reversals it is not reasonable to think he is a "closet progressive" who will keep ObamaCare. Whatever he is, he will almost certainly "dance with the one who brought him" meaning that while he might not be ideologically pure he will certainly govern as a conservative.
- The Mormon issue -could- be a factor--but we have seen repeated polling that suggest it is not. If there was no "Bradley Effect" for Obama (and maybe, statistically, not for Bradley in the first place) I see no reason to think the resistance to Romney has to do with his religion.
If the Republican base's actions *are* ideologically driven--and extend even to Romney--then it seems to make a compelling case that the division's driving force is not Obama--but rather the Republican base's.
Edited To Add: This recent 538 piece (not Nate Silver) suggests that Obama's popularity is higher than "it ought to be." If we assume that 'Democrats will like him and Republicans will dislike him--ideologically' then, for him to be "more likable than his tenure suggests would also, I think, be an indication that--for independents--he is not the primary divisive factor at work (unless you assume that acting in a divisive way either has no impact on likability or is, itself, a likable trait)